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Following the Ice: Greenland

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.


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The moon rising over Leverett Glacier.)

The moon rising over Leverett Glacier.)

One night last summer, I rose from my bed, left my tent and walked to the river. It was well past midnight, a full moon had risen over the glacier and in the twilight of the Arctic summer night, I could make out a herd of musk ox grazing nearby. My hair had gotten long, my beard now changed the shape of my face, and my clothes were soaked in dirt, sewn and patched.

A few steps from the riverbank, I slung a climbing rope around my waist and checked the knot at other end secured to a boulder. Then, with one hand on the rope and sampling bottles in the other, I eased my way down the steep riverbank to the water’s edge.

As I approached, the temperature dropped and I could see bear-size icebergs bumping through a train of rapids. So powerful was the river, that I could feel the thunder of boulders bumping over the river bottom through my boots.

I had long ago given up wearing waterproof gloves to sample the freezing water so I plunged my hands in and waited for the first bottle to fill. By now, the sun was coming up, the brief Arctic night was over. Back in my tent I tied a bandanna around my eyes and went back to sleep. It was my hundredth day in camp.

Our team's science tents

Our team's science tents

This year’s field season will bring new adventures, challenges, and scientific perspectives about the dynamic and ever-changing Greenland Ice Sheet. This will be my second time to Greenland and my second year blogging about it.

Despite the hardships inherent to camping in the Arctic for three months, I’m looking forward to it. Broadly, our goal is to determine how the Greenland Ice Sheet is responding to climate change. Specifically our job is to study the profound impact glacial meltwater has on glacial acceleration.

The Greenland Ice Sheet is massive. At its thickest point it’s almost 10,000 feet thick and it covers close to 80 percent of Greenland, the world’s largest island. It is 1,500 miles from north to south and at its widest point, it is roughly 700 miles across.

Walking across Leverett Glacier. Photo by Lyndsey Mackay

Walking across Leverett Glacier. Photo by Lyndsey Mackay

Everyday last summer airliners traveling from Europe to the U.S. drew a line of clouds over our camp. High above us, they made no sound, but their contrails were a constant part of our horizon. Approaching Greenland from the east, passengers on these flights could look out their windows and see an ocean choked with icebergs and, in the winter, a great expanse of sea ice.

All along this coastline, giant glaciers spill into the North Atlantic between tall rocky peaks. Once over the Greenland Ice Sheet, a barren plain of blinding white ice punctuated by occasional mountaintops greets airline passengers.

On the west side of Greenland, glaciers once again cascade off the ice sheet, but instead of emptying into the ocean, these glaciers slide through green hills and rocky mountains almost 100 miles from the coast.

Me setting up sampling equipment at the glacier's mouth or "portal." Photo by Lyndsey Mackay

Me setting up sampling equipment at the glacier's mouth or "portal." Photo by Lyndsey Mackay

Narrow, deep fjords crack through this western coast, some reaching all the way to the ice sheet’s edge. It is here, along these fjords that humans have lived in Greenland for thousands of years.

 

On a small spit of land jutting out into the western edge of the Greenland Ice Sheet, our small team of scientists will be living in tents, cooking over a propane stove and collecting data. Without internet or cell phones, our contact with other people will consist of a satellite phone, infrequent helicopter pilots, and a few visits to a nearby village, where we will receive email, regular mail, and appreciate my favorite local delicacy—musk ox burgers.

Though our team will consist of only a handful of individuals, two members of our team will take a helicopter 50 miles from land onto the ice sheet. There they will set up two small tents and for almost three uninterrupted months, they will live and work on ice. For them, a nightly satellite phone call or text to our camp at the ice sheet’s edge will be their only link to other people.

Ice melts when things warm up. Over the last century, burning fossils fuels has rapidly increased atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) concentrations to levels the Earth has not seen for millions of years.

Since the Industrial Revolution, the concentration of CO2 in our atmosphere has risen to levels about 40 percent higher than the highest concentrations ever experienced by the Greenland Ice Sheet. Because CO2 absorbs heat from the sun, the Earth’s climate system has been disturbed and the world’s average temperature has gone up.

The front of Leverett Glacier. Photo by Lyndsey Mackay

The front of Leverett Glacier. Photo by Lyndsey Mackay

In Greenland, glaciers are sliding faster, moving massive quantities of ice from the cold, high altitudes of the ice sheet’s interior to the warm subtropical ocean currents that brush up against east Greenland and to the gentler climate in the west and south. The increase in glacial meltwater is raising the global sea level, fertilizing the North Atlantic, and may even be changing ocean currents.

Dave Chandler taking a sample of glacial meltwater. Photo by Lyndsey Mackay

Dave Chandler taking a sample of glacial meltwater. Photo by Lyndsey Mackay

This blog will be about our team’s work, life in the arctic, climate change, and our inevitable adventures. Like last year, blog posts will be flown out of camp on stick drives whenever helicopters transport gear and people to and from our camp, and on every occasion someone is able to hike out to town (an all-day event that involves a river crossing).

Because of bad weather, mechanical problems with helicopters, and a temperamental river crossing, I can’t promise posts will make it out of camp every week, so occasionally several posts will be entered at once after a break. However, I will try to update this blog about once a week for the 12 weeks I will be in camp (May 10 to August 1).

If you’re interested in Following the Ice, sign up for updates to this blog. To see pictures from last year’s field season, you can also check out (and “like”) my Facebook page and read my previous blog. You can follow me on Twitter (@FollowingTheIce).

Foxy Prince- like last year, I'm sure he'll be at the center of at least one story

Foxy Prince- like last year, I'm sure he'll be at the center of at least one story

A musk ox herd in front of Leverett Glacier

A musk ox herd in front of Leverett Glacier

Leverett Glacier. Photo by Lyndsey Mackay

Leverett Glacier. Photo by Lyndsey Mackay

Ben Linhoff About the Author: Ben Linhoff studies glaciers and chemical oceanography in the MIT/WHOI (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution) Joint Program in Oceanography where he is a second year PhD student. He writes about glaciers, the arctic, climate change, and adventures. Follow on Twitter @FollowingTheIce.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.





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